By: Jamin Koslowe  | 

Thousands Attend Rav’s Funeral in Brookline (Vol. 58, Issue 12)

Approximately 5,000 mourners filled the main sanctuary, the gymnasium, and the classrooms at the Maimonides School in Boston on Sunday, April 11 in what officials said was the largest Orthodox Jewish funeral ever held in New England. For two hours, Tehillim were recited over loudspeakers at the school in memory of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. The mourners then listened as the Rav’s brother, YU Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, eulogized the Rav. Rav Aaron called his brother “the founder of the spiritual life of Jewish people. He had to penetrate information into students who were raised in an environment hostile to the Torah.” The coffin was then carried down the street for a short distance, as thousands followed.

The Rav was buried in the Beth El Cemetery in West Roxbury next to his wife, Tonya, who died in 1967. Funeral organizers said that thousands more would have attended the funeral, but the last days of Pesach were beginning Sunday night, and many people from outside the Boston area were worried that they would not be able to return home in time.

The Brisker Method

The Rav was born in Pruzhan, Poland in 1903. He spent his childhood in Khoslavitch, a White Russian town, where his father, Rav Moshe, served as rabbi. He began studying in the local cheder under the tutelage of an elderly Lubavitcher chasid, but soon left to continue his Jewish education at home with his parents.

By the age of 12, Joseph Soloveitchik was being trained in the “Brisker” method by his father and was studying the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. The Rav’s grandfather, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik, had founded the Brisker method of talmudic study, with its insistence on incisive conceptual analysis, exact classification, critical independence, and emphasis on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. The Rav would later transplant to America the European tradition of learning with his innovative and complex shiurim.

Lived in Boston

The Rav enrolled at the University of Berlin in 1925 at the age of 22 where he studied physics and mathematics. It was there that he studied philosophy under the direction of Heinrich Maier. In 1931 he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy. His dissertation dealt with the epistemology and metaphysics of the neo-Kantian Jewish philosopher, Hermann Cohen.

Later that year, the Rav married Tonya Lewit, a recipient of a Ph.D. degree in Education from the University of Jena. In 1932, together with his wife and new-born child, he emigrated to America to accept the post of Chief Rabbi of Boston, MA, a position which he held until his death.

In 1937, the Rav founded the Maimonides School, the first Hebrew day school in New England. Since its founding, the Rav conducted summer classes at Maimonides for his students.

Although the Rav would later serve as Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS at YU, he always considered Boston his home. For more than 45 years, the Rav would shuttle to New York every week by plane, train, or car, to deliver shiurim at YU.

The Rosh Yeshiva

Following his father’s death, the Rav became the Rosh Yeshiva of YU. In his 45 years at RIETS, the Rav’s students numbered in the thousands and spanned at least two generations. Until the late-1950's, his shiurim were conducted in Yiddish -- the language of his parents and grandparents in Europe. But the Rav successfully adapted to the new and upcoming generation, and soon mastered the English language. The Rav gave smicha to more than 2,000 rabbis, including many of today’s world Jewish leaders.

In addition to his shiurim at YU, the Rav began to give shiurim at Congregation Moriah in Manhattan in 1952. What began as a small, weekly, gathering for laymen at the synagogue every Tuesday evening, soon became a meeting point for thousands of individuals from all parts of the New York area. The Rav’s annual addresses to the Rabbinical Council of America, his shiurim before the Yamim Noraim, and his yahrzeit shiurim for his father and wife drew thousands of listeners. Some of the Rav’s public shiurim would last four or five hours at a time. 

Halakhik Man

Although he wrote much, the Rav published very little, continuing his family’s tradition of reluctance to publish due in part to the self-imposed demands of perfectionism. His main work was a lengthy essay, entitled Halakhik Man; it was published in Hebrew in 1944, and later was translated into English. The essay probes religious psychology and phenomenology, while attempting to create a unique philosophy of Halakha. In 1985, The Rav received the National Jewish Book Award for Halakhik Man.

The Rav’s essay The Lonely Man of Faith was originally published as a series of articles in Tradition magazine in 1965; last year, it was published by Doubleday Books in hardcover. The Lonely Man of Faith explores the essence of religious man’s struggle in the material world.

Several other essays were published by the Rav, but many more of the Rav’s thoughts and lectures have been published by his students, some of which have been properly attributed and others which were printed anonymously, under a pseudonym, or an acronym. Many unpublished manuscripts written by the Rav are known to exist, and there has been speculation that some of these will be released soon.

The Next Generation

The Rav is survived by a son, two daughters, a brother, and two sisters. His son, Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, is Professor of Jewish History at YU's Bernard Revel Graduate School and a critical historian specializing in medieval Jewish history. A daughter, Dr. Atara Twersky, is a member of the School Committee of the Maimonides School in Brookline. Her husband is Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies and Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University. Another of the Rav’s daughters, Tova Lichtenstein, is a professor of Sociology at Bar Ilan University in Israel and is married to Rabbi Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein, one of the Rav’s preeminent talmidim. Rabbi Lichtenstein is co-Rosh Yeshiva of ‘Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, and is also the director of YU’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.

The Rav’s brother, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik has been giving shiurim at RIETS and serving as a rosh yeshiva since 1985. The Rav’s two sisters, Shulamith Meiselman and Anne Gerber, both live in Brookline. The Rav has grandchildren living in Boston and in Israel.